Rough day for a DC-4

Air Tanker 15, a DC-4, with damage vertical stabilizer
Air Tanker 15, a DC-4, with damage to the vertical stabilizer. Photographed by Manny D-man 01 at Fresno, California (perhaps in the early 1990s).

(Originally published at 5:40 p.m. PDT May 10, 2020)

Manny D-man 01 sent us this photo of air tanker 15:

I was looking through some old photos and ran across a couple you might be interested in. I was a Deputy Sheriff/Detective assigned to an office located down the street from the Fresno Air Terminal.

I took these pictures in the early 1990’s, at the Fresno Air Tanker Base. If I remember correctly this tanker was making a drop down a canyon and tangled with either a tree or a high tension line from one of the power generation plants. It may have been at the POWERHOUSE fire, I spent several days up there manning a roadblock.

Some of our readers can probably tell us what happened to the vertical stabilizer. (UPDATE at 9:30 p.m. PDT May 10, 2020: Tom Monterastelli sent us the link to the NTSB report which is now posted below the photo of the BAe-146.)

T-15 can be seen in the Airailimages video below, at 0:20, 0:58, and 6:02.

According to registration records, N2742G was owned by Aero Union from 1982 until it was sold to Buffalo Airways in 2005. After the sale the registration was changed to C-FBAP.

Currently a Neptune BAe-146 is identified as Tanker 15.

Air Tanker 15, a BAe-146, at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) September 2, 2108. Photo by Andrew Morton.

The NTSB report:

NTSB Identification: LAX95TA304

On August 23, 1995, at 1500 hours Pacific daylight time, a Douglas C-54G, N2742G, collided with some unmarked static lines during an aerial application of fire retardant on a fire near Auberry, California. Visual meteorological conditions existed at the time. The aircraft was substantially damaged and returned to Fresno, California. The two crewmembers were not injured. The aircraft is owned by Aero Union in Chico, California, and operated as a public-use aircraft by the California Department of Forestry (CDF). The aircraft had departed from Fresno at 1448.

According to the CDF, the aircraft (Tanker 15) had made multiple runs on the local fire and was proceeding through a canyon area when the aircraft passed through two unmarked static lines that stretched across the canyon. The lines damaged the three propeller blades to the number 4 engine and severed the top 1/3 of the vertical stabilizer. The crew maintained control of the aircraft and made an uneventful landing at Fresno.

At the direction of the NTSB Investigator-In-Charge, several interviews were conducted by CDF investigators with personnel involved in the accident. Their in-depth interviews are attached to this report. The following is a summary of those interviews.

According to the Air Attack Officer-in-Charge of the fire fighting operation, a non-pilot, he indicated that he was aware of the power lines in the area. He advised the lead pilot of the wires and that he should not make the drop if he felt the conditions were unsafe. He had previously seen the lines that Tanker 15 eventually collided with, but was not aware of their height above the ground or the vertical distance between the two static lines and the sagging power lines below them. He was flying at 4,000 feet mean sea level (msl). He did not witness the collision.

The pilot in the lead aircraft, a light twin-engine aircraft, had made a clearing pass and informed the pilots in several other tanker aircraft of the power lines in the area. He did not mention the height of the lines. He was behind Tanker 15 when he heard of the collision and circled around and proceeded to join on the damaged aircraft to assess the damage. According to this pilot, there was smoke in the area, but the visibility was clear. He saw the lower power lines when he passed over the area, but did not see the higher static lines.

The pilot in Tanker 15 stated that he was aware of the power lines, and after being cleared for his run, he proceeded to turn right and continue down the drop line. He noticed quite a drift and moved the aircraft off to the side to further avoid the wires for safety purposes. As they descended to the drop point, the copilot looked out of the cockpit, saw the static lines, and called for engine power and flaps. The pilot then saw the lines in front of the windshield and went under the lines instead of trying to go over them because they were at a low airspeed with flaps extended. He said the visibility was clear and wasn’t aware of the higher static lines on three previous passes in the area.

The pilot in Tanker 96, following 1/4- to 1/2-mile behind Tanker 15, heard the warning about wires in the area and was not aware of the higher static lines above the power lines. He did not see the static lines until Tanker 15 collided with them. At this time, he felt he had enough room between the two sets of wires and elected to go under the static lines. He made the drop and then joined on Tanker 15 to help assess the damage.

Another pilot following Tanker 96 saw the power lines but not the static lines. After the collision was reported, he saw the static lines and dove under them at an altitude of 150 feet above the ground. He radioed a warning about the second set of wires to the tanker pilot following him. He indicated that the higher static wires were located where one would not normally expect to find them. He felt that the warning about wires in the area was only marginally helpful in dealing with the existing wire hazard.

The CDF prepared a diagram with photographs of the existing ground profile depicting the elevation of the terrain, the location of the wires, the height above the ground, and the distance between the two sets of wires. At the point of impact, the power lines were about 140 feet above the ground. The static lines were 150 feet above the power lines and are oriented along a south-southwest to north-northeast direction. The flight of the tanker aircraft was depicted on the map as flying along a northerly course.

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8 thoughts on “Rough day for a DC-4”

  1. I was right behind Walter on a tag and extend drop. I ducked under the wires in the S-2 tanker I was flying then. Only because Walt hit them which caused them to sway in the sunlight to become visible.
    I also flew back to Fresno abeam with Walt and did all the radio communications to approach and tower. Called the emergency for him since he had his hands full at the time.
    Incredible event. Too much to post about it right now.
    The lead plane flew under those wires at least five times prior to our drops following him.
    I also was subpoenaed to court as a witness on a later fatal crash of a Department of Fish and Wildlife helicopter that hit the same circuit of wires there.
    Also my Tanker 96 is in the background of the photo.
    There is a lot more to this story.
    Not just tail damage.

      1. Right after the hit Walter and I did a control ck and all seemed normal.
        Once we headed back to FRESNO the rudder laid over and it locked.
        Bill Mcvicker

        1. Bill I was following close behind you when the top half of the rudder was laying over to the right at a 45 degree angle. It was acting like a loose trim tab and violently shaking the entire rudder and empennage. More small pieces were coming off at the time. So I crossed over to the right side where I could see you in the cockpit.
          Advised over the radio to slow down a bit. When you slowed down. The upper portion of the rudder laid down against the attached lower section of the rudder. At that time, the shaking stopped.
          I know if it continued to shake like it did, the tail section would have failed.
          So many close calls on this incident. Incredible to make it home.

  2. Myself and two additional employees of Aero Union were tasked with getting the Tanker back into service. We replaced the vertical stabilizer, rudder and the #4 prop while on the ramp at Fresno.
    Back in service 3 days later.

  3. I was co-pilot on that flight and the accident report pretty much sums it up.
    This was our third drop on that fire. The first two we had a lead, when we arrived for the third drop, it was supposed to be the same run so the lead gave us the option not to have a lead on that run. However, at the last minute we were told to change the run to the opposite side of the tower.
    Thinking the wires went down to the power station, they actually went across the canyon. Lesson learned. Never assume anything.

    1. Bill. After you and Walt were safety on the ground. I loaded and returned to the fire. I was shocked to hear that they were asking for drops in the same area. Vern Schindelle just arrived from Hollister in an S-2 and was on a drop run heading right at the power lines. I called him off stating POWER LINES on the drop.
      Vern saw and avoided them at the last second.
      Don’t know where the Lead Plane was at this time. Think he landed at Fresno.
      We the pilots, stopped the fixed wing operations at that time.
      Really a mess going on.
      So in all. The Lead Plane passed unknowingly under the wires some four to five times. Tanker 15 hit them. Myself in Tanker 96 ducked under them and right behind me, Jim Dunn in Tanker 100 ducked under them. He also thought he hit them. And then later Vern almost went into them.
      This was a bad day for all.
      Glad that nobody was hurt.

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